Potato industry leaders from throughout the country led a rally outside of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday afternoon, urging the Senate to take action on a comprehensive farm labor reform bill.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and leaders from the U.S. Apple Association and the Agricultural Workforce Coalition also spoke in support of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act during the event, organized by the National Potato Council.
The House of Representatives has already passed the bill, which speakers at the rally said was drafted based on nine months of intensive meetings and compromise. Participants in the rally urged the Senate to pass the legislation this session for President Donald Trump to sign into law. Advocates touted the bill as critical for keeping U.S. farms in business.
A large Idaho contingent attended the rally, supporting what they hope will become the first comprehensive labor reform since 1986.
“Passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (in the House) was a great step forward toward solving the labor crisis,” Simpson said. “Just yesterday we saw a new access for potatoes in China. That was great news. Now we need the labor to take up that demand.”
Simpson considers the legislation to be a good bill that would address an issue that’s lingered throughout his two decades in Congress.
“We feed the world, and if we hope to continue we need to solve this issue,” Simpson said.
NPC President Britt Raybould, a St. Anthony potato farmer, said the bill would result in “long-term labor solutions” and she commended lawmakers who supported it for reaching across party lines.
“Doing what’s right is not always easy,” Raybould said.
The NPC is the lobbying arm of the potato industry.
R.J. Andrus, an NPC Executive Committee member from Idaho Falls who works for Idahoan Foods, said under the status quo, an immigration raid at the wrong time could destroy a year’s worth of farm production. The bill would provide stability to thousands of agricultural workers and their employers, he said.
“Reform is critical. As we have seen with the H-2A program, the current system can’t provide the workforce our farms need,” Andrus said.
The bill would streamline the process of obtaining H-2A visas for foreign workers, also reforming H-2A wages to better reflect actual market rates while protecting employers from sudden wage increases that disrupt their planning.
The bill would also heighten standards for worker housing, accommodate the need for year-round agricultural workers, establish a merit-based visa program, implement background checks for applicants and their children and provide a process for farm laborers to seek temporary Certified Agricultural Worker status.
“We want a legal workforce in the United States of America, and this bill provides us the capacity to do so,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, who is the bill’s author.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-California, who is a rice farmer, said conservatives should understand the bill wouldn’t “give away the store” to undocumented farm workers.
“Agriculture has needed and begged for a stable ag labor workforce. That’s what this bill is about. It’s about ag labor. It’s not about amnesty; it’s not about immigration,” LaMalfa said.
LaMalfa hopes the bill will also lead to the end of the “coyote system” of undocumented workers sneaking across the southern border.
“Most of these folks do good, honest work, and by and large these are good, honest people who have been doing the work in the U.S. for decades anyway,” LaMalfa said.